As far back as I can remember, I have loved clothes. I speak of “clothes” inclusively. Meaning also shoes, hats, bags, gloves, nightwear — anything you can put on that momentarily seems to change you into someone else.
As a child, I wanted black patent Mary Janes so much! At birthday parties, every other little girl wore them, with short white socks that had lace around the edges of the cuffs. But my mother said Mary Janes weren’t good for the feet. I had brown laced shoes from the Indian Walk store instead — until we moved from cold, grey New York to sunny California, where brown laced shoes on little girls looked wrong. A fashionista even before the term was coined, my mother at last permitted white-and-brown saddle shoes to enter my sartorial life. Although not made by the Indian Walk company in which she had placed such trust, saddle shoes were apparently minimally acceptable because they did have laces and an arch. Mothers seem to have been obsessed with arch support in the 1930’s.
Come college, came brown penny loafers. No more laces, not much arch support, and a pronounced tendency to slip off the heel when on feet in motion. But how could she say no, when they were on almost every page of the college issues of Seventeen and Mademoiselle?
I leave for another time the complex topic of pumps and trying not to fall when having to stand up and walk away from a chair on three-inch heels. I hadn’t really meant to begin with shoes, anyway. It just sort of happened.
The first piece of clothing I bought all by myself with no thought of what my mother would say (although it was she who had given me the money) was acquired the year after World War II. I was fifteen and a half and needed a new blouse. And so I went shopping at Macy’s one Saturday with Hellen Guggenheimer, who I thought the prettiest — and who was the prettiest — girl in my class. [She was also one of the nicest, which is why I am using her real name — just in case she is still alive and might be reading this.]
Since Hellen was perfect, any blouse she chose would have to be perfect, too. And it was! A cream-colored “poet’s” blouse in some floppy synthetic fabric, with dropped shoulders, a large floppy rounded collar and a loose floppy white bow you could tie and untie. Everything draped and flowed (including the long sleeves you could roll back) and seemed to me to be right out of the early part of the English nineteenth century. (Why I thought this, I have no idea; there was nothing Regency about it, except perhaps the dropped shoulder seams.) Fortunately, Macy’s still had two on the rack. Even more fortunately, my mother made no objection. I continue to remember that blouse with great affection. I even wish I still had it, floppy synthetic fabric or no.
In fact, I remember clothes owned and loved in years gone by far better than I remember much of what happened in those gone-by years, or many of the people I once knew. For starters, there were the four outfits purchased at Henri Bendel to see me off to a splendid start at the “fancy” girl’s college that had given me a nearly full scholarship — ensembles selected to offer no clue that my tuition and board were almost free.
First, a very scratchy tan-and-brown tweed suit with pencil skirt, to be worn with a short sleeved beige cashmere sweater at the many football weekends to which I would presumably be invited by as yet unknown young college men. Next, a violet wool off-the-shoulder sheath dress (with thin cloth-covered belt) that came with its own violet cloth corsage and required a strapless bra. My mother carefully removed the corsage after we had got the dress home so that there would be somewhere to pin real corsages, when the as yet unknown young men would give them to me at evening dances after the future football games were played.
My whole freshman year I got invited to one football weekend. At Princeton, of all places. [Where I live today, although not because of that weekend, I assure you.] It was a blind date. The game was a disaster for Princeton. (They lost to the University of Virginia.) The date was a disaster for both the violet dress and me. (The strapless bra required by the dress was lifted from my suitcase by Virginia pranksters while I was wearing the scratchy tweed suit to the game; the date was disappointingly short in height, soon very drunk, and wholly without thoughts of corsages, real or otherwise.) Thereafter, the tweed suit and violet dress reposed undisturbed in my campus closet, never to be worn again.
Also purchased at Bendel’s in preparation for college life was a three-piece blackish-green pinwale corduroy ensemble, with a full skirt gathered on a narrow waistband and a fitted collarless jacket with slashed sides and wide slashed three-quarter sleeves that permitted the ruffle-edged long sleeves of its companion paisley cotton blouse to show through. I liked the corduroy outfit best of all four because it seemed to me late Victorian in feeling, although it lacked hoops. (What was this desire to retreat by means of costume into the past?) Another plus: you didn’t absolutely need a girdle or panty-girdle to wear it, as you did with sheath-shaped dresses or skirts, except maybe to hold your stockings up. [I never did like garter belts; they got pulled down by the stockings attached to them whenever you sat down, and dug into your stomach thereafter. Pantyhose? Not on the market yet. They came along four or five years later.] I kept the corduroy outfit for years — to flee into the nineteenth century whenever I felt like it. My don liked it, too. It must have looked modern to him; he taught Shakespeare.
The fourth Bendel purchase was a two-piece “cocktail” dress in dark emerald green taffeta: it shimmered invitingly under the light. It had a “New Look” flared skirt imitative of the post-war Dior silhouette and a fitted three-quarter sleeve jacket with lapels and taffeta buttons running down the front that invited unbuttoning by anyone daring enough to try. What could we have been thinking, my mother and I? To what cocktail parties would seventeen-year-old me be invited where this sophisticated item might come into its own?
I wore it for the first, and only, time to a New Year’s Eve party given by my first serious boyfriend’s uncle. Everyone else at the party was in their forties or early fifties. The living room was full of bridge chairs set up like seats in a little theater, all facing a very small television set placed on a table between the two windows of the room. The set was such an expensive state-of-the-art new thing that it was deemed worthy of a whole New Year’s Eve party all to itself! First serious boyfriend and I sat on our chairs in the back row and held hands shyly while the black and white “entertainment” flickered between the windows. Occasionally, he eyed my taffeta buttons. But even the subsequent under-the-mistletoe kissing, in full view of the collected guests, was chaste. Poor first serious boyfriend had to wait till we reached the relative privacy of my mother’s living-room sofa. (My parents were already in bed.) Only then did toying with buttons begin, and treasures concealed by the shimmering green jacket were at last revealed.
Poorly sewn on, two of the buttons fell between the cushions of the sofa and were found next morning while I slept the sleep of the not-quite-just (but not-so-bad-really) in my maiden bedroom. They never got sewn on again. Perhaps because there wasn’t going to be another New Year’s Eve party until next New Year’s Eve, and by then both my mother and I had forgotten about the buttons. Or perhaps for some other reason best known to my mother.
Uh-oh! Look at the word count of this post! And I haven’t even reached the beautiful black wool dress with white cotton pique collar and cuffs that the saleswoman at Saks assured us had also been bought by Mamie Eisenhower. I wore it to my one sophomore-year football weekend. This one was at Yale. My host was a graduate student — in the law school! But I’ll save that story for another time.
Scratch that. At this rate, it looks as if there are going to be a lot of other times. I’ve got sixty-three more years of clothes to tell you about.
Bet you can hardly wait!